Note: Between the busy holiday period and a wee bit of writer's block concerning the epilogue of Chorus, I figured it might be better to just begin this new fic. The epilogue will happen eventually, I promise.
Slim was a private gem by nature, few acquaintances from both before and after the zoatox crisis and the rebellion really bothered to keep in touch and she worked largely from her apartment, rarely having to leave it. The last time she'd had reason to leave was when that abandoned down-district factory exploded and everyone in a three-district radius had to evacuate while it was investigated. The resulting scandal when the authorities discovered the remains of an experimented-on pearl and traces of zoatox matter was a good reason to stay indoors for as long as possible.
So, whenever anyone did seek her out for any reason, it was a good sign that they were desperate.
She let the initial holo-call ring out, waiting for the message. The gem calling her tried three times before giving up, and the message they sent was pretty annoyed.
We have an incident in district fourteen, upper west near the Silverdene. Get your brittle mass over here or I'm sending a crew to pry you out.
Slim delayed for as long as she could, tossing back a compound mix and selecting her tools slowly, meticulously. If she were to guess, this was some sort of heist (the Silverdene was popular with upper-class gems) that had an unusual component; she'd need magnifying scanners, a metronomical, perhaps her pitch sensor.
She didn't lock the door before she left, thinking she'd be back within a quadrant.
She was wrong, for once.
“Took you long enough,” the Amethyst squad leader grumbled as Slim arrived on the scene.
“Apologies,” Slim replied insincerely, rummaging through her toolkit. “You didn't mention what kind of job this was, I wasn't sure what to bring...”
“I would have explained if you answered your holo-cast. Never mind, you're here now. What do you make of this?”
The squad leader had walked her right up to the crime scene; cordoned off by macro-screens, surrounded by the little evidence fabricates where other Amethysts were interviewing witnesses, the unfortunate victim's ruptured mass was covered by a tarp. A halo of rich purple nitrate blood fanned out across the ground.
“They didn't go for the gem,” Slim mused.
Most standard thieves and grudge-holders attacked the gem of their victim, to finish them off quickly and give them less of a chance to retaliate. If you pierced the mass just enough to get them to retreat to their gems you could rob them with ease. However, this attacker had gone for a shattering by ruptured mass, an especially difficult and rather sadistic way to kill a gem. Slim had never seen such a thing before, but it was unmistakable.
“Every gem we've talked to says they didn't see anything,” the squad leader said. “At least one of them is lying, it's just a matter of finding out who.”
“Maybe not,” Slim mused, lifting the tarp and gently wincing at the state of the gem's remaining mass. “What do you think happened?”
“Hired hit,” the squad leader shrugged. “By an Aquamarine, maybe... or a Spinel. Something that got in quick and vanished.”
“Definitely not,” Slim told her, taking out her metronomical and measuring the blood spatter. “At this angle, the attack was from above.”
She pointed upwards for emphasis, at the mesh covering the quadrant's air-purifying system. The squad leader barked out a sarcastic laugh.
“From up there? Mid-cycle? Come on...”
“It would have to be a small gem. Or light, anyway...” Slim continued, ignoring her. “The mesh would warp otherwise...”
She raised her magnifying scanner and, sure enough, there were very small, almost imperceptible, indentations in the mesh. It was whole though, it hadn't been torn or bent to allow a weapon through. Curious...
“This quadrant's crawling with gems all cycle, especially at mid-cycle,” the squad leader scoffed. “Don't you think any of them would have noticed a gem up there?”
“I wouldn't know, I haven't asked any of them yet,” Slim shrugged.
Even though the fabricates were supposed to be soundproof for the sake of confidentiality, Slim could hear the Carnelian sobbing from the crime scene. Once inside, they had to wait for her to calm down before they could get a straight answer out of her. Slim observed the little drops of blood on the hem of her sparkling gown; she was roughly four pelmetres from the victim when the attack happened, Slim estimated.
“I told you already, I didn't see anything,” Carnelian sniffled at last. “I only turned around when I heard the screaming, oh sweet Core...”
“You were in front of the victim, then?” Slim asked.
“Well, yes...” Carnelian stammered, taken aback by Slim's monotone. “I always leave straight after a set, and she paid her bill before she left the...”
“Did she have any enemies you know of?” Slim interrupted.
“No, of course not! Everyone knows her, she's always throwing parties...though not anymore, oh Core...”
“Did you hear anything unusual, by any chance?”
“Aside from the screaming?”
Plainly irritated that Slim wasn't fawning over her the way the other Amethysts had, Carnelian dropped the melodramatics.
“No, I didn't hear anything,” she hissed.
That in itself was odd. Summoned weapons made noise, so did handheld ones.
“I wasn't doing anything,” the Spinel grumbled. “Just my job.”
“So you say,” Slim nodded. “A shortcut, was it?”
“It's quicker to go round the upper-west than north, every delivery-gem knows that!”
“Even at mid-cycle?”
“Especially at mid-cycle! Every gem's moving in the same direction...”
“Look, you're not on the hook for this...”
The squad leader frowned at this, but she said nothing.
“...if you tell us the truth maybe we can talk about clemency for anything else you've done.”
The Spinel squirmed in her seat. Slim could tell she wanted to talk, but she wasn't sure if Slim could be trusted. That was fair.
“It's far more important to the Diamond authority to get a potential danger out of the quadrants, especially in light of what's happened recently...” she said.
Zoatoxes. Someone was messing with zoatox matter. She left that unsaid.
“Some petty thievery doesn't matter, if you can help us out,” she continued.
“Okay,” the Spinel mumbled reluctantly. “I was there to scope out pearls. I wasn't even going to take any, I was just reporting back...”
Slim didn't even ask who Spinel was scoping out the pearls for, which went a good way towards gaining her trust. She didn't say anything, just waited for Spinel to speak.
“The Silverdene's a good place to scope out pearl owners, and they're usually careless enough to get away quick. There's new models on the market...”
“And did you see the victim leaving the Silverdene?”
“I wasn't watching her,” Spinel admitted. “I had my eyes on her pearl.”
Slim sighed, and turned to the squad leader.
“You didn't tell me she had a pearl with her.”
Pearls made jobs like this so much easier, in Slim's estimation. Their recall was excellent and they were incapable of lying, and this one had the bonus of belonging to the murdered gem. Slim would be back in her apartment before aftcycle, she was sure.
It was faintly smiling when she was brought into the fabricate it was stored in, and Slim wasn't surprised that the Amethyst squad hadn't thought to interview it. As far as they were concerned, it was about as useful as the broken holo-corder that had failed to get any footage of the attack.
Still, Slim winced, they might have washed a little of the blood off of it. Poor thing looked like it'd been dipped in the stuff.
“I'll arrange for a iodine wash and a full repair before we find you a new owner,” Slim assured it. “We'll make this quick...what did you see?”
“I didn't see anything.”
Slim's fingers paused over her notes. Pearls almost always walked just a few steps behind their owners. Surely it saw something...?
“Nothing at all?” Slim asked. “Are you absolutely sure?”
“My owner instructed that I keep my eyes on the ground.”
Slim groaned, rubbing her head. Just her luck to get a pearl that had been ordered not to see anything.
“I am sorry I cannot be more helpful,” the pearl said, neatly folding its hands in its lap.
That little action lead Slim to notice something unusual...
“Your fingers,” she said, taking out her scanner to inspect closer. “Did you tell the Amethysts you were injured?”
“I was not injured in the attack,” the pearl told her. “My owner removed my fingers.”
Now that the scanner had her looking more closely, she noticed other ways the pearl had been 'modified'. Its gem was too pristine to account for gaps in its mass; the excised pieces of its bodies were cut too cleanly. As well as missing three fingers on one hand and four on the other, a slice of its ear had been taken out and there was a long furrow running down the left side of its face that Slim had initially thought was dried blood.
So the assailant had directly targeted the victim, but left the pearl untouched even though it was just a few steps away? Even though the pearl could have reliably informed on them? It didn't make sense.
Slim wouldn't get much out of this pearl. Unless she used its inability to lie to find out more.
“I think whatever attacked your owner came from above. Would you agree?” she asked.
“Yes,” the pearl answered.
“But the mesh above the air-purifying system wasn't damaged. Why do you think that is?”
“I think the weapon used was long and thin enough not to break the mesh.”
“It would have to be very long and thin, though, wouldn't it? The gap between the mesh and your owner would have been eight pelmetres at least.”
“My owner was lifted off of the ground by the weapon.”
“I thought you said you didn't see anything?”
“I didn't,” the pearl responded. “Her mass was dropped on me afterwards.”
“So whatever it was had the strength to lift her off of the ground using something thinner than a strafing pole, at least.”
“And what do you think would be capable of doing something like that?”
There was something a little off about the pearl, to Slim's finely-tuned instincts. Her responses seemed almost rehearsed, but pearls rarely interacted with any gem besides their owner. Could the victim have planned her own murder?
All of Homeworld had talking in whispers about zoatoxes after details of the illegal experimentation on pearls using zoatox matter were leaked into the bulletins, but it seemed too easy somehow to blame a zoatox for this murder. During the war they had killed countless gems, but they had infested and laid their eggs in many more. Their strength had always lain in how quickly they could breed. Just one working alone wouldn't settle for killing a single gem.
Had this one somehow learned to lie? Was that even possible?
Or was it infected?
Slim simply didn't know enough about pearls to tell. She'd need the opinion of someone else.
Slim was one of the last hatches from a planet that had proven too weak to support proper gem growth. Almost every hatchling from that planet shattered within a few cycles, and the ones that survived weren't fit for purpose. The Jaspers were too small and spindly, the Larimars were dull and homely, the Rubies weak and fearful, the Sapphires blind and the Peridots stupid. The one useful thing the planet could be used for was its large supply of fresh water for pearl production.
Slim was added to the ranks of the new Amethyst squadrons, but she failed most of her training. The rest of her squad often left her behind when they went on patrol, to file evidence or fix the equipment. Over long boring cycles that turned into long boring orbits, when there was nothing to do but look at the evidence again and again she developed a knack for seeing things that other Amethysts overlooked.
Even for all the cases that were solved purely because of her, all the black market operations she cracked and all the criminal leaders she had brought down, the other Amethysts thought of her as a failure and treated her as such. They brought her into cases begrudgingly, always with a hissed under-the-breath insult.
Homeworld did not take well to inferior products. Once she had enough money saved to move out of the squad barracks and work from a distance, she resolved to only step outside when absolutely necessary.
The pearl was the one who answered the door. Somehow, Slim wasn't surprised.
She was ushered in without a word to where Orthoclase was buried up to her elbows in the chest cavity of another pearl.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of your fine company?” Orthoclase drawled.
“I need your help,” Slim admitted.
Note: So news! My health, which regular readers of my stories know is in a constant state of tanking and recovering, is tanking again, which means I'm going to be housebound for a while and that means I get to update more often. Every cloud silver lining etc.
I have not seen the latest episodes though, and as always this is going to spiral away from canon in a big way.
“I have half a quadrant and then I need to be crosstown,” Orthoclase said, walking out from behind the surgery curtain.
Her pearl handed her a chemical wipe and she draped herself across the low couch across from Slim. The pearl perched neatly on the end.
“This won't take long,” Slim assured her. “I just need to pick your brain about something.”
“Let me guess...some gem boosted some pearls and some other gem got shattered in the process?” Orthoclase drawled. “I haven't heard of any new merch on the black market...”
“No. A gem lost her life but her pearl was untouched.”
Orthoclase's eyebrows shot up. Even the pearl looked a little stunned, if that was possible.
“It happened in bright midcycle, in the quad by the Silverdene. Lots of witnesses who didn't see anything. Whatever it was, it attacked from the circulation mesh without damaging it. Pretty strange stuff.”
“I'd agree,” Orthoclase hummed. “But what do you think I know about it?”
“The victim's pearl,” Slim continued. “At first I thought it was injured in the attack. It was missing some fingers. And I got the feeling it wasn't telling me the truth.”
“Pearls can't lie,” Orthoclase said.
“I didn't say it lied,” Slim retorted. “I just think it was keeping some information from me. It knew more than it was letting on.”
Orthoclase sighed, rubbed her temple.
“So what do you want me to do about it? There's no programming or procedure in the galaxy that could get a pearl to disclose something it's ordered not to...their privacy intra-programming is too broad. The only way around it is to just learn to ask the right questions.”
“I'm done questioning it. I just want to know about the missing fingers. The pearl said its owner did it,” said Slim. “Why would she do that to her pearl?”
Orthoclase sighed again, and made some vague gesture to her pearl. The pearl rose and retrieved something from a nearby shelf.
“It happens a lot more than you might think,” she began, holding out the object for Slim to look over. “You can get these on the black market easier than a barrel of filler.”
“Alum shears?” Slim queried. She'd seen them in the course of work before...
“Modified,” Orthoclase explained. “There's a different charge current loaded into the barrel, it reacts with the pearl's spike. Normally, if you cut off parts of a gem's body they'll retreat into their gems and the body part will reform, right?”
“Obviously,” Slim drawled.
“The charge from this makes the alteration permanent. It only works on pearls, and it can only be reversed by an underground remodeler.”
Slim's brow gently furrowed as she stared down at the shears. Why would anyone intentionally damage their own pearl?
“It's an acquired taste,” Orthoclase said, knowing exactly what she was thinking. “Most gems who buy these things try it once then bring their pearl in for repairs and never do it again. There's a few sick pebbles out there though, it becomes a habit.”
“I don't get the appeal,” Slim mused, gingerly picking up the shears.
“Hey, Ginger,” Orthoclase called to her pearl, who slid across the couch to her side in response. “Let's say I put one of your fingers in this contraption. How would you react?”
“Crying and screaming,” the pearl answered, deadpan.
That was curious. Slim hadn't been around many pearls, but from the little she did know she gathered they didn't show emotion of any kind as a rule.
“And why?” Orthoclase prodded.
“I'd assume if you were going to cut my fingers off outside of surgery, you'd want me to cry and scream,” the pearl responded.
“So...there are gems deliberately destroying their pearls but want them to react badly to it? Isn't that kind of going against a pearl's nature?”
“Pearls do what they're told to do,” Orthoclase shrugged. “If I told Ginger I wanted her not to make a sound while I cut her fingers off, she wouldn't. But it doesn't really start there...what kind of gem was shattered?”
“Zoatox war veteran, am I right?”
“Yes, as it happens.”
“And have you ever known an Emerald to keep only a pearl for company? Especially a wealthy war vet? Look up her last few hangers-on, I bet you'll find plenty of gems that wanted her gone.”
“That's incredibly helpful,” Slim said sincerely, although internally she squirmed at the idea of having to go talk to any other gems. “Thanks.”
“No problem. But before you go...”
Orthoclase rose and grabbed a sack, rummaging around in it before finding what she was looking for.
“Consider this a gift,” she said, handing the object over.
“No thanks,” Slim retorted, trying to hand it back.
“I mean it, just take it,” Orthoclase insisted. “It might come in handy for your investigation.”
“Hm...and where did you get it?”
“It's untraceable, if that's what you're worried about. Just keep it away from checkpoints.”
“No, I think I should leave it here...”
The sudden sharpness in Orthoclase's tone stopped Slim in her tracks.
She knows something.
But trying to get information Orthoclase didn't want to give would take orbits that Slim didn't have the patience for.
“All right,” she mumbled, taking the pearl. “My apartment is small, you know that?”
“Pearls aren't picky. And you're a decent sort for a slag-picker.”
As she walked Slim to the door, Orthoclase called back for her pearl (Ginger) to start packing for their next job.
“You named your pearl?” she asked with a low chuckle.
“I see a few hundred pearls every orbit,” Orthoclase explained. “Had to tell her apart somehow.”
“Okay, but ginger? What in Core's name is a ginger?”
“No idea,” Orthoclase shrugged, pushing Slim out into the street. “By the way, yours is named Lavender.”
Slim had originally met Orthoclase on one of the rare occasions she had gotten caught with stolen property. Unlike most Amethysts, Slim had a grudging respect for Homeworld's seedy underground characters, and that respect was mirrored back at her. She often managed to get information out of gems that had withstood imprisonment, bribery and threats of shattering merely because of this mutual respect.
Orthoclase was let go in return for hinting, indirectly, that a group of Rubies had been responsible for hijacking a lost-and-found station and attempting to pass off the stolen pearls as the newest series on the market to make some hefty cash. She never officially gave anything away, but Slim knew how to connect the dots and they found the culprits within a few cycles. Without Orthoclase, it might have taken orbits.
Since then, Slim had made a habit of pretending not to know what Orthoclase was doing, dropping by her workshops every now and then for a 'friendly chat.' If she happened to get some gossip about some other gem doing something illegal, then that was a pleasant surprise.
It struck Slim as grim but funny that the criminals she associated with in the course of her work got along better with her than her so-called squad-mates. Still, those same squad-mates often did things on the job that were considerably worse than the criminals (in her opinion, anyway.) So perhaps it wasn't so strange.
The Larimar had a weak, wavering voice when she answered the holo-com, and when Slim was ushered in she took notice of how she trembled at the slightest noise.
“I assume I'm not the first Amethyst that's stopped by here?” she began.
“Actually, you are,” Larimar replied with a shrill bark of laughter. “They called my holo-cast to tell me. Half a quadrant ago. After nearly three hundred orbits, all I get is a holo-cast. Sums up our entire relationship, really. I always figured she'd get herself in trouble some time, but shattered? She still manages to surprise me....I mean, she did surprise me, I mean...she used to, sometimes....”
Slim slowly held up a hand to slow down Larimar's babbling. She was on the edge of hysteria, Slim could always tell when an interview was about to go south.
“I'm sorry you weren't told in a more empathetic manner, my colleagues aren't known for their sensitivity...”
Larimar snorted, and smiled weakly.
“...but I'm here to try and find out who's responsible for it, and I think you can help me. Could you tell me about your relationship with Emerald?”
Larimar sighed deeply, took a bracing sip of her compound mix, and began.
“We met when she came back from the zoatox war...she was with a Carnelian back then, but she used to stop by the store I worked in all the time. She was so charming, and funny....she invited me to all these parties but I never had time to go....And then one cycle she marches in and tells my supervisor I'm quitting and moves me into her apartment, and I'm like, what about Carnelian...”
Slim listened intently to Larimar's long rambling musings on the relationship, trying to pull out little details about Emerald that might have been important.
Outwardly charming but callous. Domineering. Played mind games with her partners.
“...it was pretty great, she took me everywhere with her, even though Carnelian was still singing at the Silverdene and it was awkward...and she bought me anything I could have wanted, she was so good to me...”
Deliberately flaunting new partner in front of old partner. Buys affection from gems.
“We had our problems, sure, but what couple doesn't? It wasn't anything really that bad...”
At this point, Larimar stopped. Slim knew she wanted to say something but was holding back. It seemed like she had been trying to convince herself more than Slim that it had been a good relationship with a pleasant gem.
“Did Emerald ever hurt you in any way? Physically, I mean,” Slim asked bluntly.
“No, of course not!” Larimar gasped. “Why would she? I did everything she wanted me to...”
She trailed off. Slim simply stared at her, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“...well, okay, there were a few things that happened....”
Here we go.
“...but it's not a big deal, okay? She was a commander in the zoatox war, for Core's sake, she saw some really messed up things. She kept it all bottled up, so it was bound to come out in some way, right?”
Slim said nothing.
“It happened mostly when we were...you know, intimate. She grabbed me a little too hard, you know how it goes when you get carried away with something...” Larimar continued. “And a few times she'd be teasing me, just joking, right? And she'd go a little bit too far, but she was so big, she didn't really know her own strength.”
“She was ex-military,” Slim suggested. “I'd say she knew exactly how strong she was.”
Larimar mumbled to herself uncomfortably, grasped the material of her shimmering blue-and-white gown.
“Okay, there were a few times when it seemed like she was getting a kick out of it,” she finally admitted. “She said I was beautiful when I'm crying....I thought it was a joke, you know? She stopped when I said I was going to leave. And she never, like, made me retreat into my gem or anything...”
“Did you leave her?” Slim asked.
Larimar laughed bitterly.
“No, I didn't have to. I got her a pearl for her hatchcycle. She spent all her time with it. I don't even think she noticed when I packed my bags.”
Slim was on her way back to her apartment when her holo-cast rang. She let it ring three times and then read the message that came up.
We've got another one. Upper west quadrant, building G5, apartment 10G.
Answer your Core-blasted cast!
She made her way there leisurely, stopping for a sulphide package along the way. By the time she arrived at the apartment, the supervising Amethyst looked ready to shatter her.
“No sign of forced entry, same kind of attack as the last one. Get on with it so we can get out of here, okay?” she growled.
Slim nodded, and then took her instruments out of her bag and slowly tinkered with them, pretending to adjust them. The supervisor had no idea what they were even for.
The blood spatters across the floor leading to the remains of the victim indicated that the attack had once again come from above, but when Slim looked up all she saw was smooth marbled ceiling. There was a vent that lead to the main air circulation system, but it was on the other side of the room.
As was the victim's pearl.
Ignoring the victim entirely, Slim approached the pearl as all the other Amethysts started gathering up their evidence to leave.
I just have to ask the right questions.
The pearl smiled faintly as Slim sat next to it.
“I don't suppose you saw anything?” Slim began.
“I did not,” the pearl replied.
“Was there anyone else in this apartment besides you and your owner?”
“No,” the pearl answered.
“Even during the attack?”
“No. There was no-one.”
“Did your owner have any enemies?” Slim asked, switching the subject.
“I wouldn't know, she did not talk to me and she did not bring me outside.”
Great. Even if I do ask the right questions, this pearl has no information.
“I am sorry I cannot be more helpful,” the pearl said quietly.
“That's okay, it's not your fault,” Slim assured it.
The pearl moved her hand a little to the side, and in this small movement Slim caught a flash of discoloration on her arm. A long, deep furrow had been dug into the pearl's skin. Slim gingerly took hold of the arm to inspect it.
“Did your owner do this?” she asked.
“Because she enjoyed it.”
Even though pearls weren't real gems and couldn't really be hurt by such things, Slim felt bad for it.
“She used one of those black market alum shears?” she asked.
“To make the cuts, yes. She also used hydrochloric acid to make them stay.”
“How many do you have?”
Sure enough, when the pearl pulled up the hem of its skirt at Slim's request, its legs were covered with similar furrows. Slim barely suppressed a wince.
When she finally arrived back at her apartment, Slim had forgotten all about the pearl Orthoclase had given her, so when it regenerated while Slim was stacking up her evidence folders it scared her nearly into her gem.
“Don't do that,” she gasped in the newly reformed pearl's direction, clutching her chest.
The pearl blinked slowly at her, standing in the middle of the room with a stillness that had always struck Slim as eerie.
“Okay,” she began, gesturing to the pearl to sit down on the edge of the rest pod. “Look, Orthoclase insisted that I take you, I've never had a pearl before so I have no idea what to do with you. Any suggestions?”
The pearl said nothing, just stared at her.
“Great,” Slim grumbled. “Why in Core's name did she want me to take you so bad, anyway?”
It was meant to be a rhetorical question.
“She intends for me to protect you,” the pearl answered.
“Protect me?” Slim barked out a laugh.
The pearl was a head taller than Slim, but less than a third of the width of her. Its skin was white with a purple tinge to it and it had long curls the colour of the night sky. The dress it was wearing had three layers of stiff ruffles and loose fluttering sleeves. Even for pearls, it was the definition of dainty. What could it possibly protect Slim from?
“She said your name is Lavender,” Slim said, wiping the tears of mirth from her eyes. “What in Core's name is a lavender?”
“I don't know.”
“Then who gave you the name?”
“A visiting quartz. He knew what it was, but he forgot to tell me.”
He? What's a he?
“Right, okay,” Slim mumbled, rolling her eyes. “I'll find some use for you. Since you're here to protect me, how about you keep guard while I work?”
The pearl complied, and after a little while Slim forgot it was even there. When she did turn around, she half-thought the pearl was shirking as it had its back turned to her and was about to scold it. But then she noticed what it was looking at.
The air vent.
Note: This is coming out later than I anticipated, I'm under a new treatment regimen so I'm unsure of what writing time is available right now, but will hopefully keep updating on a semi-regular basis. Thanks for your patience.
Pearl ownership turned out to be very different than Slim had initially feared. She had acquired enough cash over the orbits to afford a brand-new one, for her needs were modest, but her natural wariness over being in the company of other gems had her thinking it would be awkward to have a gem, even a gem that barely counted as a gem, permanently in her space.
But the pearl was so unobtrusive she kept forgetting it was there. She could spend entire quadrants going over spatter evidence with such focus that whenever she turned around and spotted the pearl, she jumped. It wouldn't move unless she told it to, so it was more-or-less a constant fixture in the corner of the apartment.
Slim asked it to pick up things, tidy the apartment, even process some of the more boring data for her, but she was naturally self-sufficient and there just wasn't much work to give the pearl. A fleeting thought of using the pearl for her carnal urges occurred to her, but it was gone in the next moment; Slim had never really had trouble with those urges in the first place, and she found the idea of doing that with the pearl oddly distasteful.
It wasn't until a full seven cycles passed since Orthoclase had handed over the pearl that Slim finally hit a breakthrough.
She had been analyzing some crime evidence that didn't seem to make sense. Improvising as she always did, she picked up an object of equivalent weight and heft to the supposed weapon (a small sulphide container) and swung it in the supposed trajectory of the evidence. But her swing was clumsy, and the container was heavier than she expected, it slipped from her grasp.
She had, more-or-less, hurled it at the pearl.
There was less than a single pelmetre between Slim and the rest pod that the pearl had been sitting on, and less than a parsec to avoid being hit. Slim didn't see the pearl move, but it had, and the container hit the back of the rest pod, smashing the control panel there.
“Hm. You dodged it,” she murmured, a little stunned.
“I'm sorry,” the pearl responded.
“No, don't be sorry,” Slim said. Her mind was ticking over fast, as it usually did when she was piecing evidence together. “Why did you dodge it? I didn't have time to tell you...”
“I have a basic self-preservation program in place, and you did not order me to ignore it.”
“I can do that?”
“It's recommended in the manual.”
“Which I never got, because you're illegal,” Slim mused, tapping her forehead. “And your previous owner didn't follow the instructions?”
“My previous owner didn't read the manual. She only owned me for three cycles before she lost me on the tracer.”
Slim wanted to test the pearl's reaction time, so naturally she didn't give any warning when she struck out and slapped it across the face. To her shock, the pearl didn't even attempt to defend itself.
“What...?” Slim sputtered. Her hand stung, she hadn't held back. “Why didn't you block me?”
“I'm sorry. Did you want me to block?”
A deep purple bruise was already blooming across the pearl's cheek. Looking at it, Slim felt a little sick.
“Well, yes!” she said, fiddling with her hair as she always did when she felt on edge. “You just told me you have self-preservation programming, I assumed you'd stop me and I wanted to see how fast you could...”
“You're my owner. I can't defend myself from you.”
“Even without me ordering you to let me beat you up?” Slim snorted, incredulously.
“Of course. It's a basic rule.”
Slim made a little noise in the back of her throat. She had assumed the pearls that had been mutilated by their murdered owners had been ordered not to defend themselves, but she hadn't realized that all pearls were programmed to be helpless towards their owners in particular.
“Okay,” Slim sighed. “I'm going to hit out at you again, and this time I do want you to try and avoid getting hit. In fact, I want you to avoid getting hit by anyone or anything from now on, okay?”
Slim held off for about half a quadrant before she struck out again. This time, the pearl had been idling by the corner of the apartment and the only way to avoid Slim's fist was to jump over her.
It looked to Slim like the pearl had disappeared into thin air, with just the slight air displacement that set Slim's hair floating to indicate she had moved at all. Slim's fist just about glanced the wall, and the pearl was behind her.
Slim knew from the evidence she had found that a pearl's physical strength was nothing compared to even the weakest of gems, but not much had ever been written about their speed. It made sense for them to be fast, they had considerably less mass than normal gems, but it seemingly had never been utilized in any real way.
A little shiver ran down her spine. The great advantage that the zoatox species had had against gemkind had been their unbelievable speed. Breeding, growing and attacking had all happened in the blink of a gem's eye, and every time gems managed to gain some upper ground the zoatox evolved and attacked in a new and more vicious way. Diamond Core's great and horrific sacrifice had just barely managed to stop them.
Whispers across Homeworld were saying that these murders bore the hallmarks of a zoatox attack. Perhaps they did, but pearls had been compared to zoatox more than once and for good reason.
Slim was just about to download the most recent pearl ownership manuals when her holocast rang. She didn't even have to look at it.
The markets were so busy when Slim made her way to the far quadrant it was hard to believe a gem had been shattered.
Let alone two.
Well, one and a half. We can't register a pearl as a gem shattering.
On the surface, it looked like the pearl was mere collateral damage. According to the witnesses (who were talking rapidly in the constructs about the little they had seen), whatever had struck Hematite had gone through the pearl. Slim inspected the perspex box the pearl had been inside, measuring the cracks.
There goes my theory.
Her mind had just been starting to come around to the idea that a pearl had committed these crimes, perhaps on the order of some gem that had seen possibility in their speed. Whatever had hit those targets had been long and thin, and could only do serious damage if they were used at high velocity. But she couldn't imagine a pearl destroying another pearl in the process.
On the other hand, pearls didn't seem to be capable of going against orders even at risk to their own safety, why wouldn't they destroy a pearl if they were following orders?
I don't know enough about pearls for this.
And that was probably why Orthoclase had handed over the pearl.
Lavender. That's its name. Her name.
“What are you thinking?” the commanding Amethyst asked her. “Turf war?”
“Unlikely,” Slim mumbled. “Hematite's had this shop here for seven hundred plus orbits.”
“So?” the Amethyst scoffed. “This whole quadrant changes hands every couple of orbits. Maybe she was a holdout.”
“Whatever you say,” Slim said, rolling her eyes.
The attack trajectory was once again coming from the ceiling. It had gone through the upper corner of the perspex box, through the pearl's gem, out of the base of the box and through Hematite's shoulder. The pearl wouldn't have felt a thing, but the Hematite had been in enough pain to scream, loud enough to attract the attention of every gem shopping in the district. By the time anyone was in direct line of sight, Hematite was shattered and whatever had attacked her was long gone.
All within the space of three parsecs at most.
No gem was capable of that kind of speed.
As far as they knew.
“Aw, they got the pearl too?”
A Spinel was lingering by the door (probably just released from the evidence constructs), staring at the perspex box with vague dismay.
“I'm afraid so,” Slim told her. “But even if it wasn't, it would have been taken in as evidence.”
“I know that,” the Spinel groaned. “I wanted to get dibs when it gets released on the pre-owned circuit.”
“Why? What's so special about this pearl?”
“It's freaky,” Spinel said with a cheerful grin. “Hematite used to sell tickets.”
“Freaky how?” Slim asked, feigning disinterest by rummaging through her toolkit.
“Like, it's been dead the entire time she had it,” the Spinel explained. “Except sometimes it used to move when you weren't looking. Hematite kept it in that box to show she wasn't making it move. It was seriously spooky,”
Curiouser and curiouser.
“How shattered is it, exactly?” Spinel asked.
“Ah, slag it,” Spinel muttered and slumped away.
Two mutilated pearls and a dead one that moved.
The squad dealing with the case were packing up and moving on. No doubt they'd be pinning this as a turf war between rival gangs and Hematite as an innocent bystander. Slim, of course, knew it ran much deeper than that, but she also knew they wouldn't listen to her.
Slim lingered around the market stalls for a little longer than was comfortable for her. In the past it had been a good place to pick up rumours that lead to case facts, so it was worth the mild anxiety being surrounded by so many gems tended to provoke. They never clocked her for a patrol Amethyst; at her size, she was usually mistaken for a strangely-coloured Jade.
Even so, the cycle had nearly ended before she heard anything useful.
A downstreet stall selling offcut compound mixes was a quiet corner in the otherwise-crowded market, a steady stream of gems stopped by to drink compound and chat to the Iolite running the stall. Slim camped out there for a while before a Larimar stopped by and, over the course of three compounds, told her entire life story. Slim half-listened right up until she heard something interesting.
“She just hasn't been the same since,” the Larimar moaned. “It's like, nothing's really exciting anymore!”
“Well, why don't you hit the backstreet? They've got that blind pearl, it's supposed to be pretty nifty...” the Iolite responded. She sounded bored.
“We got banned from that place,” Larimar groaned. “She got carried away....besides, when you've seen the Murder Pearl take out old zoatox veterans everything else just pales in comparison.”
“Better you than me,” Iolite shivered. “Personally I find the whole idea of murder pearls creepy.”
“Lucky for you there's only one then,” Larimar laughed. “But I asked and Hematite says she has no idea when the next fight is going to be. She says the pearl is down for maintenance, but like I believe that...”
There were many Hematites on Homeworld, and a good number of them involved in criminal activity, but Slim knew exactly what Hematite this Larimar was talking about. Only one Hematite was known for hosting underground fighting matches. She paid large amounts of cash to the Amethyst squadrons to look the other way.
“I don't have it,” Hematite growled. “Don't you need a warrant?”
“Actually, I don't. I have authority to raid at random,” Slim responded. “I don't really feel like doing that, though.”
“Okay, what do you want? I can give you a few thousand...”
“I don't want cash, I just want you to answer some questions. All off the record.”
Hematite cursed under her breath, rubbed her temples and sighed.
“Okay, fine. I'll tell you what I can. Off the record. If it goes any further, I'll deny everything.”
“Deal,” Slim shrugged. “Tell me about the pearl.”
“It was a joke, okay? It was just some old broken pearl I got off the black market, got it rejigged and set it up in the arena. It was supposed to get smashed. It was never meant to fight.”
“But...it did fight?”
“It did. It fought and it won. Over and over.”
“How is that possible?” Slim asked. “Pearls aren't built for fighting, and from what I understand you get really tough gems volunteering for this kind of thing...”
“I don't know how, it just kept winning. It just...always found a way to kill them.”
“What orders did you give it?”
“I didn't give it any orders,” Hematite moaned. “I just said something stupid, like 'try not to die too quickly' or something, I don't know! I never had a pearl before, Larimar had a bunch of them...I didn't know what I was doing, okay?”
“Okay,” Slim agreed. “So, where is this pearl now?”
“No idea,” Hematite growled. “Orthoclase borrowed it and never returned it. Not that I want it back, it made me lots of money but it scared the slag out of me...Larimar left me for a while because of it....why do you want to know, anyway?”
“No particular reason,” Slim lied.